New Study Finds Local Land Use Policies Perpetuate Segregation

A study published in American Political Science Review, The Geography of Inequality: How Land Use Regulation Produces Segregation,” found that whiter communities are more likely to support restrictive land-use policies and that these policies increase racial segregation. The author, Jessica Trounstine, uses analysis of racial composition, land use restriction data, and fair housing lawsuits to illustrate that even seemingly race-neutral land use restrictions result in increased segregation in predominantly white communities.

Land use restrictions are generally implemented and regulated locally. They encompass policies such as zoning, development fees, and growth regulations or caps. The author argues that communities may support these policies to preserve home values, low congestion, and high-quality public services. These powerful tools can also be used to maintain segregated neighborhoods. Research shows that both historically and still today, white Americans believe that maintaining whiter communities will preserve property values and the quality of public services.

Trounstine hypothesizes that white communities are more likely to support restrictive land use policies and that these policies result in higher levels of segregation. She posits that three groups are most likely to support land use restrictions: 1) homeowners who aim to protect their property values, 2) wealthy residents opposed to redistribution of public goods, and 3) whiter communities to exclude people of color. Consequently, the author controls for both home ownership and wealth to isolate the effect of whiteness on land use policies.

To test whether white communities are more likely to support land use restrictions, the study compares community-level racial demographics in 1970 to land use stringency levels in 2006. Due to post-war suburbanization and discriminatory lending practices, the year 1970 is often cited as the peak of segregation. Consequently, the author predicts that communities that were whiter in 1970 will have more restrictive land use policies in 2006. For her analysis, the author draws on data from the Wharton Residential Land Use Regulatory Index (WRLURI) and the Census of Population and Housing.

The analysis found that cities that were modestly whiter (greater than 3 percentage points) than their surrounding metropolitan area did in fact have more stringent land use policies. Land use stringency was most severe in communities that were greater than 15 percentage points whiter than their metropolitan area. To illustrate this relationship, Trounstine identifies three cities within the Los Angeles-Long Beach metro area—Carson City, Pomona, and Glendora—which had white populations in 1970 that were lower than the metro average, slightly higher than the metro average, and significantly higher than the metro average, respectively. The whitest community, Glendora, had by far the most land use restrictions in 2006, including a stringent rezoning process, minimum lot size requirements, and a lengthy residential development review process.

The study also tested whether more stringent land use policies resulted in greater levels of segregation, using WRLURI and historical data on lawsuits under the Fair Housing Act to assess city demographic changes between 1970 and 2011. The findings reveal that cities with more stringent land use restrictions had a greater share of white individuals in 2011 compared to nearby cities in the same metro area. These findings still hold when controlling for racial composition in 1970. Similarly, cities that were sued under the Fair Housing Act were more racially diverse than those that were not sued, with white individuals making up 73% of the population in cities without lawsuits and 68% in cities with lawsuits. This finding suggests that when cities are threatened under the law to roll back land use regulations, cities grow more diverse.

This study highlights the significant role that local regulatory policies play in maintaining segregated communities. These findings underline the importance of NLIHC’s policy priority to promote racial equity and fair housing. Even regulatory policies that do not intentionally discriminate may still disparately impact racial minorities, thereby limiting access to high-quality, affordable housing.

The article can be found at: